Interviews

Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 30 June, 1997

SCHOOL TEACHER/ AUTHOR DAN WOOG:

Openly Gay High School Soccer Coach

Interview by Jack Nichols



 

Author Dan Woog is an award-winning high school soccer coach who lives in Westport, Connecticut. His extraordinary book, School's Out (Alyson, $11.95), examines with poignant personal accounts, the problems, triumphs, heartaches, and challenges facing our current generation of students, faculties, parents, and guidance counselors.

Woog's book has inspired many who need to know that gay concerns are not only in the province of consenting adults. It fills a much-needed vacuum in activist thought, pointing to gay and lesbian students as noteworthy, and to the plights oft-forgotten faculty members who live in abject fear of job loss.

As Woog demonstrates, America's students --in 1997--are more aware of gay issues than ever before. They stand up courageously behind academia's cloistered walls, carrying the banners of social change. School's Out is a fascinating trip through the mind-sets of today's youths and a first-rate peek at the patchworks of educational administrations which wrestle in many different ways--depending upon the locale-- with gay issues.

Badpuppy: What are some of the greatest fears facing gay and lesbian students?

Woog: Fears of students today are not physical, they're social. The fact that by coming out in school, or even being perceived as being gay they will commit social suicide. A kid can handle being knocked around physically. Its a lot tougher to walk down the hall and have people snicker at you, talk about you behind you back, or worse, ignore you.

Badpuppy: What kind of activism drives students and for what sort of changes?

Woog: It crops up in so many ways. There are gay/straight alliances popping up all over the country in states you'd expect and states you'd not expect. There are kids who are agitating for gay and lesbian literature. And they go beyond that. There was a controversy in the Kansas City area over whether or not to have gay themed-young-adult models on the library shelves. Kids started a check-out protest. They checked out over three thousand books that could be considered controversial, up to and including the Bible. They are no longer allowing teachers to not react to words like fag and queer in the classroom. Basically, students are saying "We're here, we're queer and we're part of your school."

Badpuppy: Why do most teachers not come out of the closet and why do some do?

Woog: Two reasons. They're worried--the old fear--that people might perceive them to be pedophiles, or confuse homosexuality with pedophilia. Don't forget in most states, still, teachers are not protected in terms of employment. The second reason is sort of a newer fear, that people will point fingers at them and say they're promoting a homosexual agenda, that people will say, "OK, so you're gay, but why do your students have to know about it? Keep it out of the classroom." However, more and more teachers are coming out, and there are a couple of reasons for that as well. You can't teach when you live in a closet. You teach in a classroom. A classroom encompasses everything that's going on in America today.....(Visible) gay and lesbian issues are part of our world and you can't keep them out of the classroom. A second reason is they're out in other aspects of their lives, no longer content to hide their lives from their colleagues....They realize they're not sharing their own lives with their colleagues and that this is an untenable way to live.

Badpuppy: You cite big cities where discrimination is challenged. Where else?

Woog: I'm drawn to places like Nebraska where really really good things are going on in small ways, and not just in big cities, but in places like Grand Island, a town of about 40,000 where individuals are introducing homosexuality into their health and psychology curriculum and bringing in speakers, or places like rural Washington where the rural outreach project involves a couple of people who are walking across the state literally knocking on the doors of tiny high schools, talking to the principals saying, "Listen, you've got gay kids in this little school, here's what you need to know about them." Places like that where most kids grow up, and that for me was the most encouraging thing, to find these places.

Badpuppy: You tell how lots of inspiring non-gay teachers encourage understanding.

Woog: Straight allies are so important. Straight allies can do things that gay people can't do. They can raise questions that gay people might find difficult to raise. They can push the administration. They can raise the level of awareness in a school because people say, "Wait a minute, its not the gay teachers who's concerned. Its the straight woman who's got four kids and a loving husband. Maybe we really should pay attention." Just as whites were important in the civil rights struggle and men have been important allies in the women's rights movement, straight people are crucial to gay and lesbian issues in America's schools.

Badpuppy: With the gay-only Harvey Milk School what about intergration/ separatism?

Woog: The Harvey Milk School is for kids who really could not make it in New York City public schools. Too flambouyant...too out there. And many have many other problems as well, not only sexuality. It is a real haven for them, and wonderful. I think the vast majority of kids can and should make it in a mainstream school setting. They deserve, just like any other kids, to sit in the cafeteria and talk with their friends about romance problems...They deserve the right to sit in classrooms and hear about gay and lesbian heroes along with their straight classmates and as well as straight heroes. They deserve to be in the drama club, and on the football field and in the U.N. Club. I frame it as a school safety issue. No school would ever say, "We think we should be safe for 90% of our kids." Its ridiculous. Every school wants to be a safe, affirming place for 100% of its kids, and if you remove gay kids from that environment, its not solving the problem, its exacerbating it.

Badpuppy: High school newspapers now treat gay issues. Amazing. Is it common?

Woog: The stack of newspapers that I got sent by the National Scholastic Press Association was battle-ship sized...from all over the country. Nevada. Iowa....There's both a sameness to the stories, there's usually a coming-out piece by some anonymous kid. There were contrasting editorials, one with a religious tone, the other with a humanistic tone. There were letters--back and forth--about gay issues....You got this sense of isolation, where you got the feeling that each school was dealing with it for the first time on its own terms and thought of itself as pioneering for tackling these issues. I never got tired of reading those school newspapers.

Badpuppy: Many schools with gay/straight alliances. What are they about?

Woog: About kids recognizing that they're growing up in a multi-cultural world and that they indeed have gay classmates. The growth of the gay/straight alliances comes from the kids. Kids demand these organizations. They don't come from teachers, and they certainly don't come from the administrators. The groundswell is from the bottom up. They provide support for gay and lesbian kids. Even the ones who never come to a meeting know that there are people in the school who care about them and that helps them get through the day. They provide support for gay kids who can sit around and talk without masks they usually wear. They're great for the straight kids because it allows them to learn about gay and lesbian issues and then to educate their other friends who don't come to meetings. And its great for faculty because they realize the kids are not afraid of addressing these issues. Even for the closeted faculty member who never comes to a meeting, he or she hopefully becomes a little less frightened by his or her role in school.

Badpuppy: Why is it a dereliction of duty on the part of educators when they ignore the concerns of gay and lesbian youths?

Woog: Because they're not fulfilling their roles as educators. Every teacher has kids that he or she doesn't like and any teacher who says differently is lying. But what most teachers do, is they go out of their way to address those kids... the slovenly kid, or the sullen kid. They realize there's something going on in that kid's life and even if they don't particularly like that kid, they bend over backwards because they realize its their duty as an educator. Teachers have not done that with gay and lesbian kids because they don't know who they are. You can teach for 20 years, have two or three thousand kids in your teaching career, have two or three hundred gay or lesbian kids come through your classroom and not know who they are. If you don't know who they are, its very easy to ignore the needs of gay and lesbian kids and say we don't have 'em, or if I don't know who they are, how can I help them? And yet teachers owe gay and lesbian kids--its a crucial obligation--to address their needs. And its just as crucial to address the needs of the straight kids who might one day have a gay or lesbian co-worker, boss, son or daughter. How do you do it? You do it across the curriculum. You don't have to introduce Gays and Lesbians 101, or Gay Poets. But when the name Walt Whitman comes up, you talk about the fact that he had male lovers, and lets see how that may have affected his poetry. If you're a bio teacher, you talk about same-sex behavior across the animal kingdom. If you're a junior high teacher, you don't talk about having a boyfriend or a girlfriend, or when you get married you wife will be this. Instead, you talk about when you grow up and find somebody you want to spend your life with. If you're an elementary school teacher, when you put up the bulletin board on Our Families--you put up Mommy and Daddy and Mommy and Stepdaddy and Grandma raising the kids and you also put up Mommy and Mommy. You do it in this natural way so that you affirm the existence of every single kid in your school and you don't necessarily do it by saying, "OK today we're going to talk about gay issues."

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